Christopher Nolan‘s space magnum opus Interstellar came out this weekend. Although it had a successful weekend and has garnered mostly positive reviews, it’s proven to have some fairly divisive elements, namely its finale.
The brunt of criticism is on the film’s hokey thesis that there are two forces capable of transcending time and space: gravity and love. Nobody’s arguing with the gravity side, because it’s scientific sounding and in line with the generally realistic look and feel of the film (although that’s a dodgy prospect as well.) It’s the insistence that love acts as a binding force of the universe, allowing the character of Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, to indirectly interact with his daughter and different points in her life. Audiences can’t be blamed for accepting this as the film’s premise, because they are flat out told by characters that it’s the case. To begin, the character of Brand, played by Anne Hathaway, insists that she feels compelled to go to her lost lover on one of the alien worlds because love may allow her to know he’s waiting for her, in defiance of time and space. Later, echoing that speech, Cooper says that “they,” beings who built a wormhole and a black hole that are giving humanity the chance to travel away from Earth, needed him to help them because his love for his daughter was the real power that allowed for communication to the past, and not the manipulation of gravity.
Allow me to discredit the characters first, and then offer a more mundane explanation.
When Brand attempts to persuade her team to expend their fuel to go her lover on another world, she’s just experienced a rather traumatic sequence of events: she’s witnessed the death of one of her co-pilots on this venture and learned that significantly more time has passed on Earth than she anticipated. Her speech is very impassioned, prompting even Cooper–who is also an emotional wreck because of his attachment to his family on Earth–to dismiss her justification for her hopes by reminding her that she’s a scientist.
It’s not meant to be a scientific explanation. It’s a person desperately trying to justify something with more than just “it’s my intuition” or even worse “because it’s what I want.”
Similarly, when Coop repeats her ideas he’s in an emotionally distraught place: he’d already committed himself to dying in a back hole and then found himself inside a construct, offering him a glimpse at undoing the choices he’d made that lead him there but being denied. As he drifted through a tesseract which allowed glimpses into his daughter’s room at every moment of her life, he said something that made me think of an alternate to the “power of love” meme attached to this movie. Now, excuse me, I need to paraphrase because I don’t recall the dialogue verbatim:
They need love, my love of my daughter, to help them navigate this construct. They can reach her at any time, but because they’re five-dimensional beings not bound by time, they can’t quite comprehend how to deal with us and our limited perspective.
It’s not “love.” It’s research. The “they” who created the black hole/tesseract are referred to as five-dimensional beings (which Coop surmises are in fact highly evolved humans) who can freely manipulate time and gravity. They need Coop to deliver a message to his daughter, the final part of an equation that would set humanity down the path of manipulating time and gravity. They, far in the future, know she’s the one who came up with the formula and they are able to establish a means of communicating with her, however they are too advanced to communicate with her directly (I mean, have you tried to comprehend Middle English?) but, as Coop said, because they’d have trouble comprehending her existence (how can one know the right time to deliver a message when time is a fluid concept for them?). Coop wasn’t providing the final ingredient of “love” to make their time machine work; he was acting as a subject matter expert. He was able to navigate the endless doorways into her life and recognize when the appropriate time and way to deliver a message was, not because of love per se, but because he knew her specifically and what it was to be human at that time.
Unfortunately, “subject matter expert” doesn’t play so well on the big screen. So instead we get the much more emotional “love” as short hand. Sadly, that brings with it all sorts of nonsense connotations of hokum like the Law of Attraction. This is what’s made audiences balk at the movie. Sadly, reducing the connection between a father and daughter to “I know her well” might have been even more disappointing.